Context: Gossip did its best to obscure the facts of Burns' life. He was falsely described as a debauched drunkard, chiefly by enemies who fought his strong republicanism by slandering him as a man. There is truth in the accusation that he drank a great deal, but drink was a vice of his time, which he developed while being lionized by high society. The Jolly Beggars, devoted to the celebration of drinking, takes the form of a cantata, and was started about 1785. This zestful pagan work is at times serious, at times satirical. So little interest did the author have in it that he did not believe it worth publication. In 1793, his friend George Thomson, editor of a six-volume Select Collection of Scottish Airs for the Voice (1793–1811), who had heard it mentioned, wrote to Burns for a copy. Burns replied that he had forgotten it and doubted whether a copy existed. However, Thomson tracked it down and it was published in Glasgow in 1799, after Burns' death. It had its inception following a visit by Burns and his friend James Smith to the Change House of Poosie Nansie's in Mauchline, a favorite haunt of vagrants. The cantata begins with the description of the gang of loafers drinking in the tavern. Popular tunes of the day provided the music. One man nearest the fire is a soldier in a ragged red uniform, sitting with his sweetheart. He sings to her a stanza beginning: "I am a son of Mars," and boasting of fighting in Quebec, Cuba, and in Gibraltar where he lost his leg and arm. A Recitativo introduces his doxy, who comments on her love life and her final decision to love the "sodger laddie." Next a Merry Andrew tells of his experiences as a clown, and is followed by a "raucle carlin" (brave old woman), a traveling violinist, a tinker, and finally a poet. If, as the legend goes, this poem is based on an actual experience, the poet may represent Burns himself. Begged for a ballad, he sings stanzas for which the crowd provides the chorus. The tune used was Jolly Mortals, fill your glasses. See! the smoking bowl before us, Mark our jovial, ragged ring; Round and round take up the chorus, And in raptures let us sing:
CHORUSA fig for those by law protected!Liberty's a glorious feast!Courts for cowards were erected,Churches built to please the priest!What is title? what is treasure?What is reputation's care?If we lead a life of pleasure,'Tis no matter, how or where.. . .Here's to budgets, bags, and wallets!Here's to all the wandering train!